Air force boss slams poor state of af­fairs

Sunday Times - - News - BOBBY JOR­DAN

SOUTH Africa’s air force chief has de­liv­ered a damn­ing ver­dict on the coun­try’s mil­i­tary air­craft, rais­ing con­cerns about de­fence ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Lieu­tenant-Gen­eral Carlo Ga­giano’s com­ments in an au­di­tor-gen­eral’s re­port, in the pos­ses­sion of the Sun­day Times, come amid sig­nif­i­cant bud­get cuts in the de­fence force that call into ques­tion the logic of the coun­try’s multi­bil­lion-rand arms deal.

Con­cerns raised in the re­port in­clude:

The bud­get for the Hawk squadron, used to train pi­lots to fly Gripen fighter jets — both Hawk and Gripen air­craft were bought in the arms deal — is only enough to keep the air­craft air­borne for 2 000 fly­ing hours a year, half the op­ti­mal fly­ing time;

The air force can­not af­ford a per­ma­nent main­te­nance con­trac­tor for its air­craft;

De­lays of more than a year in get­ting some spare parts for air­craft; and

An “in­suf­fi­cient num­ber of trained pi­lots, in­struc­tors and ground crew to en­sure a sus­tain­able core of fighter pi­lots”.

In ad­di­tion, it has since emerged that the air force flag­ship squadron of 26 Swedish Gripen fight­ers — 11 of which have been de­liv­ered — will only be able to fly for a to­tal 250 hours a year, enough to train one pi­lot to Nato stan­dards.

Writ­ten queries to the air force went unan­swered this week ow­ing to the “long week­end”, ac­cord­ing to two of­fi­cials.

Last week, the SANDF de­nied there were prob­lems with the air de­fence sys­tem planned for the World Cup.

“The SANDF is play­ing an im­por­tant role in sup­port of the Fifa 2010 na­tional safety and se­cu­rity plan. Air de­fence forms a cru­cial part of this na­tional safety and se­cu­rity plan, and is pri­mar­ily ren­dered by the SANDF,” said spokesman Bri­gadier-Gen­eral Marthie Visser.

The bud­get cri­sis has also af­fected the navy and the army. Fig­ures pre­sented to par­lia­ment re­veal that the navy can, on av­er­age, only af­ford to keep each of its ships at sea for 41 days a year. This ef­fec­tively means that, at any one time, the coun­try has only one ves­sel to pa­trol 72 000km² of ocean.

Yet, in the arms deal, South Africa bought four new frigates and three sub­marines, which will spend most of the year in port.

Ga­giano’s com­ments are the strong­est in­di­ca­tion yet that se­nior mil­i­tary per­son­nel have doubts about the coun­try’s long-term mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity.

The sit­u­a­tion is so bad that the At­tor­ney-Gen­eral can­celled last year’s per­for­mance au­dit of the fighter train­ing pro­gramme and called for ur­gent man­age­ment in­ter­ven­tion.

In his writ­ten as­sess­ment, Ga­giano de­tails se­ri­ous main­te­nance is­sues that are ham­per­ing the air force and claims both the Hawk and Gripen sys­tems can only be “min­i­mally im­ple­mented”.

He was par­tic­u­larly out­spo­ken about the Hawk fight­ers, which cost R5-bil­lion and were bought to pro­vide pi­lot train­ing for the more ex­pen­sive Gripens.

Ga­giano said the di­min­ished Hawk pro­gramme meant the air force could not “ad­e­quately feed” the Gripens — which cost tax­pay­ers be­tween R15-bil­lion and R20-bil­lion.

Leon En­gel­brecht of De­fence Web, the spe­cial­ist mil­i­tary news and re­search web­site, said air­craft and pi­lots would be at risk. “A typ­i­cal Nato pi­lot needs 240 hours ev­ery year to stay cur­rent. If that is ap­plied to us, then only one of our pi­lots would stay cur­rent.”

De­fence ex­pert Richard Young, who was in­volved in the orig­i­nal arms deal pro­cure­ment plan, said the air force needed to spend about R60mil­lion a year to main­tain the Gripens.

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